Agudelo’s MLS return is cautionary tale about Americans abroad


Juan Agudelo is back in Major League Soccer, and there are lessons to be learned (or re-learned) from what we’ll call “a close shave.” We are talking, after all, about a guy who flirted briefly with a career death tumble into the Freddy Adu zone.

Even if you aren’t 100 percent sure what the “Freddy Adu zone” is, you can probably guess that it’s not a good place to be.

Agudelo is still just 22 years old, although it’s probably safe to say the last 12 difficult months have aged him significantly. So the man who scored his first United States national team goal at 17 years old (still the youngest U.S. man to do so) will re-join the New England Revolution.

While Agudelo becomes a forward the MLS Cup runner-up desperately needs, he also stands as the latest cautionary tale about Americans shipping themselves off overseas – about how the temptation of the jump abroad is not always the be all-end all that too many media types and supporters pretend it is.

One year ago, Agudelo became the latest American to join English side Stoke City. He had apparently failed to notice that Stoke City was the very same black hole into which Brek Shea had fallen. At least, we are pretty sure that’s where Shea has been for most of the last two of years – proof of life around the Britannia was difficult to come by as the lanky lefty made just three appearances for the Premier League club.

That’s about the same time Maurice Edu was languishing similarly for Stoke, left to seek the lifeline of short-term loan assignments, a la Shea.

Either way, Agudelo chased the Euro dream and, last January, announced his arrival into Stoke. Failure to gain the required UK work permit turned into a decidedly less glamorous scene, a loan into Dutch side FC Utrecht. That went pretty much nowhere and, long story short, Agudelo has been oddly idle since last spring.

Once again, we see that when it comes to talented young Americans facing this critical career choice, it’s not just about going overseas – no matter what Jurgen Klinsmann says – it is about finding the right opportunity. Stoke City wasn’t it, clearly. Nor was it the right spot for Shea, who pretty much lost two years of his professional life. At least Agudelo only threw away one year.

In the bigger picture, Agudelo’s case underscores this important point: arguments about whether players are better served staying in MLS or leaping abroad cannot be held in a vacuum; each case is different and must be measured with critical care.

But that doesn’t always wash in domestic soccer circles, where we seem to like our arguments reduced to something simple, boiled down to a “this or that?” As in, “Is it better for young U.S. talent to go abroad, or should they stay home and develop through MLS?”

The truth, of course, is always more complex. When it comes to individual player development, arguing about whether MLS is superior or inferior to duty abroad – with all that glittery gold – is like arguing whether it’s better to be married or to stay single.

There’s never just one answer. The argument really is quite pointless until we know more about each situation. Either path could potentially work out splendidly, or either plan could fall completely to pieces. Just ask Adu, who has managed to make a tire fire out of both scenarios at various points of his sadly aimless career. (That guy hasn’t played regularly since … wait for it … 2006.)

Stoke wasn’t the right spot for Agudelo. Nor for Shea nor Edu (although Geoff Cameron has certainly earned his PL chops while at the Britannia).

Similarly, Sunderland wasn’t the right spot for Jozy Altidore. But before we turn this into a “Why Americans fail” argument, remember that this stuff isn’t exclusively a red, white and blue flu. Being comfortable in an environment means everything when passports are stamped, and about 30 different things can go wrong, everything from cultural adaptation to being saddled with the wrong manager. Jermain Defoe didn’t work out at Toronto, but I doubt we’re seeing many stories about “Why England players cannot make it overseas.”

Going back to Landon Donovan long ago at Bayer Leverkusen, and even back before that, it has always been about “right time, right place.” It’s never an easy call – but it is always, unfailingly, an important one to get right.

Read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk. .


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One Response

  1. Mysterious J January 30, 2015

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